ATLANTA -- It's the second-biggest lie in Atlanta, right behind "The Games are running smoothly."
"We get stronger when others desert us," Cuban third baseman Omar Linares said.
Fidel Castro no doubt would applaud that noble sentiment, but for those living outside of Havana, here's the stat of the day:
At the 1992 Olympics, the Cubans allowed 16 runs in nine games, going undefeated to win the gold medal.
In 1996, they're already allowed 15 runs in two games.
Oh, they still haven't lost in major international competition since '87, winning 136 straight games by their count.
But that streak is in jeopardy.
The Cubans needed to rally from behind Sunday to beat Japan in 10 innings, 8-7. And the United States stands a decent chance of beating them in five days.
Fans leaped on top of the dugout waving Cuban flags at the conclusion of Sunday's epic, while four Japanese players stood motionless on the field at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.
The Cubans had maintained their air of invincibility, scoring twice in the 10th after the Japanese took the lead in the top half.
But clearly, this isn't the same team.
How can it be?
An entire starting rotation has defected since the '92 Games.
Rene Arocha, Ariel Prieto, Osvaldo Fernandez, Livan Hernandez and now Rolando Arrojo.
The pitching staff is so thin, the Cubans started a reliever, Pedro Luis Lazo, against Japan.
And to protect against further defections in Atlanta, they left shortstop Herman Mesa and pitcher Orlando Hernandez (Livan's older brother) home.
"They don't always bring their best guys," Orioles general manager Pat Gillick said yesterday. "You would think that at the Olympics they would. But they're funny about that."
They should be.
Their nation is crumbling, and their athletes keep running away.
Two boxers defected last month, and U.S. assistant coach Jesse Ravelo said three others have been forced to lose weight to fill holes from age and defections.
The baseball team suffers from similar problems, but it's still a swaggering powerhouse, the team to beat at these Games.
First baseman Orestes Kindelan, 31, hit a home run measured at more than 500 feet Sunday night, reaching the second deck with his aluminum bat.
Second baseman Antonio Pacheco, 32, and shortstop Eduardo Paret, 23, would form a quality major-league double-play combination.
And Linares, 28, might be an All-Star at third.
Manny Estrada, the Orioles' international scouting supervisor, rattles off the names of a half-dozen others who could play in the majors, but Paret is his favorite.
Estrada actually prefers him to New York Mets shortstop Rey Ordonez, the Cuban defector who might be the National League Rookie of the Year.
In fact, Estrada said Ordonez would be third on Cuba's depth chart, behind Paret and Mesa.
"[Paret] can hit a little better," Estrada said from his seat behind home plate Sunday night. "If we had a draft today, he'd be my secret weapon."
The scout smiled. "But he's not a secret anymore."
None of them is -- the scouts clocked Lazo at 92 to 94 mph on their radar guns Sunday night, and left-hander Omar Ajete at 91.
But right now, the Cubans are winning almost by memory.
They blew a 6-1 lead Sunday night, but coach Jorge Fuentes Fletas remained so confident, he kept the infield back when Japan put men on first and third with none out in the 10th.
That's right -- Fletas conceded the go-ahead run to stay out of the big inning, figuring his team could score twice in the bottom half.
But it worked.
Fletas got the double play he wanted, then managed just as brashly after Linares hit a single to tie the score.
None out, men on first and second, an obvious bunt situation. But Fletas had Pacheco, his No. 5 hitter, swing away -- and Pacheco struck out.
A double play and the Japanese were out of it, but left fielder Miguel Caldes bounced a single through the first-base hole, and the Cubans had escaped.
Can the Americans beat them? Well, they went 2-3 against Cuba on their pre-Olympic tour -- their only three losses in 31 games.
They've got a chance playing before a pro-American crowd. Indeed, coach Skip Bertman couldn't help but draw encouragement from Japan's one-run defeat.
"I was surprised at the closeness of the game and Lazo getting batted around a little bit," Bertman said before the U.S game against South Korea last night.
In '92, the Cubans posted a 1.27 ERA and outscored opponents, 95-16. They trailed only once, when the United States took a 5-0 lead in the first inning.
Now, this is Team Defection.
"A big, strong team by itself," Fletas said.
Perhaps, but not as strong as before.
Pub Date: 7/23/96